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Religion is inherently divisive August 22, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Religion, Singapore, Society.
Tags: , , , , ,

At this year’s national day rally, PM Lee emphasized the importance of religious tolerance in ensuring the peace and stability of Singapore’s society. It may be the pessimist in me speaking, but I highly doubt that all this talk about “cohesiveness” and “harmony” is going to translate into anything in our real life society until a very touchy and unpleasant subject is acknowledged: the inherent divisiveness of religion.


When in comes to something like religion, we are not simply dealing with “I’m on the basketball team, you’re on the swim team, we’re different but we’re equals”. It’s actually more like “I’m on the basketball team, and basketball is the only true and good sport in the world. My basketball doctrine tells me that all other sports are false and inferior and that people who don’t play any sport at all are heretics who deserve to burn for all eternity”


A hyperbole, you may say? Well if we boil religion down to its core beliefs and functions, we are simply faced with in group out group politics. A complicated, convoluted version of tribalism. For without defining a “foe”, there is no such thing as “friend”. Without the demonization of others, there is no glorification of one’s own group. The very core of all religions is the identification of a group of people, and along with it the blaming, or shunning, or demonization of the “other”.


We just have to take a look at the historical origins of religions and the tribalist themes in holy texts. After all, the origin and essence of Judaism is the assertion that the Israelites are “God’s chosen people”, distinct from the gentiles. The Bible’s Old Testament is brimming with genocidal incitements, where “God’s army” is sent to exterminate the people of other nations (including the Midianites, the Canaanites the Amalekites and the Hazorites, to name a few).


It seems that the key aspect of most religions is their emphasis on how “special” one particular group is, and how it is superior to or “more correct” than others. Even today we see examples of how religious dressing and public displays of faith are used by individuals to define themselves as a member of one particular group, and not another.


Related to this is fact that it is logically impossible to be one hundred percent certain about the truth of one’s own belief, without also being one hundred percent certain about the beliefs of others being false. Simply put, if I make a claim that Religion A is the one true religion, the only path to salvation, I am also implicitly stating that Religions B, C etc are false, and are paths to damnation and hellfire.


Take for example how the key differences in beliefs of the major monotheistic faiths directly contradict with each other. Central to Christianity is the belief that Jesus is God, but Judaism not only rejects this, it also asserts that Jesus is a false messiah – an assertion that Christians themselves may find offensive. Similarly, Islam also rejects the divinity of Jesus, and claims that the Jewish Tanakh and Christian New Testament are corruptions of God’s message. How could such a claim sit well with Christians and Jews?


This is definitely not helped by the fact that the holy texts of monotheistic faiths are pretty explicit about the recommended treatment of unbelievers, other religionists, and infidels.


The bible not only justifes of the destruction of believers of other gods,

Exodus 22:20 He that sacrificeth unto any god, save unto the LORD only, he shall be utterly destroyed.


It also encourages the demolition of the images, altars and places of worship of those with different religions.

Exodus 23:24 Thou shalt not bow down to their gods, nor serve them, nor do after their works: but thou shalt utterly overthrow them, and quite break down their images.


Deuteronomy 7:5 But thus shall ye deal with them; ye shall destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their groves, and burn their graven images with fire.

7:6 For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God: the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth.


In fact, just kill all those with religious beliefs different from your own

Deuteronomy 17:2 If there be found among you, within any of thy gates which the LORD thy God giveth thee, man or woman, that hath wrought wickedness in the sight of the LORD thy God, in transgressing his covenant,

17:3 And hath gone and served other gods, and worshipped them, either the sun, or moon, or any of the host of heaven, which I have not commanded;

17:5 Then shalt thou bring forth that man or that woman, which have committed that wicked thing, unto thy gates, even that man or that woman, and shalt stone them with stones, till they die.


Apparently we’re not even supposed to trust our family or friends, for those with different beliefs are liars and evil doers.

Jeremiah 9:4 Take ye heed every one of his neighbour, and trust ye not in any brother: for every brother will utterly supplant, and every neighbour will walk with slanders.

9:5 And they will deceive every one his neighbour, and will not speak the truth: they have taught their tongue to speak lies, and weary themselves to commit iniquity.

9:6 Thine habitation is in the midst of deceit; through deceit they refuse to know me, saith the LORD.


And believers are also advised to shun those who disagree with their religious beliefs

Romans 16:17 Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.

16:18 For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple.


Christians are also advised not to associate with the likes of us heathens and unbelievers

2 Corinthians 6:14 Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?


It’s not just us unbelievers who should be avoided. Avoid all non-christians altogether.

2 John 1:9 Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son.

1:10 If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed:


Unfortunately, the Quran is no less forgiving in its advice regarding religious freedom and the treatment of unbelievers.


Humiliation and wretchedness were stamped upon the Jews who did not believe in Allah’s revelations

2:61 …And humiliation and wretchedness were stamped upon them and they were visited with wrath from Allah. That was because they disbelieved in Allah’s revelations and slew the prophets wrongfully. That was for their disobedience and transgression.


Kill disbelievers

2:191 And slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, for persecution is worse than slaughter. And fight not with them at the Inviolable Place of Worship until they first attack you there, but if they attack you (there) then slay them. Such is the reward of disbelievers.


Don’t believe anyone who isn’t a Muslim

3:73 And believe not save in one who followeth your religion


For non-Muslims are “evil-livers”

3:110 Ye are the best community that hath been raised up for mankind. Ye enjoin right conduct and forbid indecency; and ye believe in Allah. And if the People of the Scripture had believed it had been better for them. Some of them are believers; but most of them are evil-livers.


Christians are considered disbelievers because they believe in Christ

5:17 They indeed have disbelieved who say: Lo! Allah is the Messiah, son of Mary.


And don’t take Christians or Jews for friends

5:51 O ye who believe! Take not the Jews and the Christians for friends. They are friends one to another. He among you who taketh them for friends is (one) of them. Lo! Allah guideth not wrongdoing folk.


When holy texts explicitly state that unbelievers, or polytheists, or those belonging to other religions, or those who are not “god’s chosen people”, are inferior to believers and deserve punishment, how can we expect believers themselves to think any differently? Even if believers do present a tolerant, politically correct version of themselves to the secular public space, we cannot ignore that by virtue of their faith, they are almost compelled to maintain the (albeit non vocalized) view that their own religion is superior to others, and that unbelievers or followers of other religions deserve the eternal wrath of god.


But is all hope lost? Not necessarily. As is already apparent in our society and the world around us, it is perfectly possible for people of different religions to coexist peacefully, and even enjoy each other’s presence. But to do so, a certain aspect of internal inconsistency or even cognitive dissonance is required. That is, at least for that point in time, one has to temporarily ignore his religious teachings, in order to allow himself to accept people with opposing beliefs as equals (and not simply some other inferior folk who are going to hell anyway). But religion is something that many would regard as over and beyond the self, the family, the society, the state, or even humankind – is it realistic to expect this of religionists?


Tolerance and harmony requires one to compromise his own deeply rooted beliefs about the superiority of his particular metaphysical views. Maybe religious moderates have the ability to compartmentalize their brains and momentarily disregard the sheer hostility that their holy texts encourage against nonbelievers. But to expect such sacrilegious compromise from holy text literalists, religious fundamentalists and right wing extremists (which I’m sure are not insignificant among religionists) is simply wishful thinking. Religious tolerance and mutual respect is and can only be possible when religionists themselves are willing to pretend that certain parts of their holy texts do not exist, for religion itself is anything but respectful or tolerant of other beliefs.


Gay marriage – the mythical threat to traditional marriage August 3, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Liberalism v Conservativism, Society.
Tags: , , ,

Conservatives and religious fundamentalists have long argued that gay marriage would threaten traditional marriage. Now any reasonable person would find that claim to be ridiculous and baseless. It is simply not rational to suggest that gay marriage is in any way linked to divorce or the decline of marriage rates. All it takes is to ask a married person: if gay marriage had been legalized before you got your traditional marriage, would you have gotten a gay marriage instead? It seems that the only way gay marriage would threaten heterosexual marriage is if we assume that all men were really gay in secret.


But conservatives have also been known to make a slight variation of the above argument: gay marriage threatens traditional marriage because it deprives the term “marriage” of its fundamental meaning. But what really is the fundamental definition of marriage, and who are these conservatives to imply that there can only be one correct meaning for “marriage”, which conveniently happens to be theirs?


Legally speaking, a marriage is a partnership. It gives spouses certain rights and responsibilities, such as responsibilities for child care, tax deduction benefits, the power to make decisions about a partner’s medical care and legal rights to a partner’s estate and property upon his or her death. But above and beyond the legal aspect of this partnership, individuals and couples also attach their own meanings and symbolism to marriage. Depending on the people involved, marriage may mean anything from a sacred union, to a public proclamation of love and commitment, to a ritualized rite of passage, to an act of resigned compliance with social norms and expectations. Personal meanings and symbolisms are just that: personal. There is no reason why a same-sex marriage would have any effect on one’s own heterosexual marriage, or change one’s own definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman.


The problem arises when people seek to impose their own definition of what a marriage is onto others. It takes a judgmental, self righteous person to suggest that other people’s definition of marriage has any bearing on his or her owns’. Take for example the all too common “functionalist” argument that gays shouldn’t get married because a marriage has the practical function of providing a stable and convenient environment for child rearing, and therefore gay marriage would be pointless. But by doing so, are they not implying that married couples who are childless (by choice or otherwise) do not meet their functional definition of a marriage, and therefore have a less meaningful relationship than couples who are married with children?


It is not reasonable to dismiss the emotional significance of a marriage simply because the couple is unable or unwilling to fulfill the practical functions of a marriage as prescribed by someone else. In fact, as a straight unmarried woman, I would be incredibly put off the notion of marriage if self righteous conservatives tried to impose their own definitions of marriage as an institution for procreation onto me.


Another (more troubling) example would be the argument that marriage is a religious institution and that gay marriage would be contrary to their religious values. Aside from the obviously false premise that marriage is a historically religious institution (It isn’t; marriage predates religion. It is a human institution adopted by religions), such an argument is also religion centric, unsuitable for a secular state and a secular contract. If one were to argue that gays shouldn’t take part in the holy, religious institution that is marriage, then shouldn’t one also argue against atheists, agnostics and freethinkers getting married? How about banning pagans, fornicators or divorcees from getting married too?


One crucial fact that proponents of such arguments ignore is that there are in effect two types of marriage: civil marriage and religious marriage. It is possible to have both; the civil marriage which is validated by signing a certificate of marriage, and a religious marriage conducted by a pastor in a religious ceremony. Religious marriages may make a couple married “in the eyes of god”, but only a civil marriage is recognized in the eyes of the state. A religious marriage is something people get on top of what is effectively a secular, legal contract, which is necessary if they wish to enjoy the rights and benefits of a legally married couple.


Religions have every right not to recognize gay marriages, but they have absolutely no right to dictate whether or not a secular, civil marriage between gays should be recognized by the state. As long as we live in a secular state, religious explanations have no place in arguments regarding legal contracts such as marriage. A secular government should not be involved in discussions about the sanctity or holiness of marriage, simply because it is only concerned with marriage as a legal contract.


If we unravel the nonsensical claims made by the defenders of traditional marriage, what we will find is a group of people too afraid to admit their true motives, that is, because of their own moral misgivings about gay marriage, they seek nothing more than to control other people’s lives. In other words, they are essentially arguing that “gay marriage shouldn’t be allowed because it goes against my values and is contrary to my definition of marriage.” Until conservatives can prove that allowing same-sex marriages actually causes harm to those outside the marriage, their protests remain as poorly disguised attempts to support discrimination based on sexual orientation, and as merely another means to control the minority by denying them something which is available to everyone else.

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